Personality Essay

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Personality  is generally  understood in two  different  ways:  (1)  trait  based  and  (2)  situational. A trait-based  understanding  defines  personality  as the relatively stable set of psychological  characteristics that  influence  an  individual’s  attitudes and behaviors   and  differentiate one  individual   from another. People have a variety of personality traits formed  by their  genetic  predisposition and  long-term learning  history.  A situational understanding defines  personality as  the  sum  total  of  ways  in which   an  individual   reacts   and   interacts   with others  and  with  his or  her  environment. Human behavior  is a function  of both psychological  dispositions  and  the immediate  situation that  a person is in. The history  of the study of personality traces back  to  370  b.c.e., when  Hippocrates proposed the  “four   humours,” through which  he  believed that individual differences could be explained. Similarly, Plato  proposed four  groupings  of characteristics  to explain  human  behavior:  (1) artistic, (2) sensible, (3) intuitive,  and (4) reasoning.  Much of the  modern  trait-based personality research  is based on these characteristics.

The  modern  version  of trait-based personality research   starts   with   Sigmund   Freud.   In  1928, Freud  presented  three  components of the  human psyche:  (1)  id,  (2)  ego,  and  (3)  superego,  all  of which controlled an individual’s  behavior  through conscious  and unconscious  thought. In the 1930s, Carl  Jung  popularized two  personality traits:  (1) extroversion and  (2) introversion, which  laid  the ground  work for advances  in trait-based personality theories.  Sharing  Jung’s assumption that  individuals are predisposed to behave in certain  ways, many theories  have tried to categorize  or define a person  based  on  a  list  of  personality traits.  For example, Myers-Briggs Personality Tests were developed  to determine  how people usually act or feel in particular situations along four dimensions: (1) extroverted or introverted, (2) sensing or intuitive, (3) thinking  or feeling, and  (4) perceiving  or judging. Similarly, the “Big Five” model was developed along five dimensions:  (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness,  (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness, and  (5) neuroticism. Trait-based theories  on  personality  are popular in modern  organizations for job recruitment, job placement, and sometimes performance  management  as  ways   to   measure the desirability and fit of future and current employees.

However,  trait-based understanding of personality has many weaknesses and problems. For example,  there is a general assumption that  a trait is  consistent   within   an  individual   and  will  not change as much as the situation changes. However, people  with  a personality trait  behave  differently depending  on  their  perceptions of situations. For example, a Type A personality may always be impatient with the pace at which most events take place at work,  but as soon as they get home, they might  begin  to  exhibit  more  Type  B personality traits,  such  as  being  more  relaxed,  because  they feel no  sense of time  urgency  and  spend  most  of their time away from work relaxing. Similarly, different people often perceive the same behavior settings in very similar ways, leading to highly consistent  behaviors  for people with very different traits. Many situations have implicit constraints or explicit  rules  that  encourage   or  force  people  to behave in predictable ways, regardless of their particular  personality traits,  such as in church  or at a funeral.  Thus,  the general  traits  independent of a situation  become   meaningless,   and   researchers have  found  very  low  correlations between  traits and  the predicted  behaviors.  There  are also many problems  when  people  try to measure  personality traits.  For example,  the personality tests generally have   vague   questions   and   usually   induce   the socially  desirable  answers  because  the  traits  are value  laden.  No  one  will  disclose  in  personality tests in a job interview  that  they are lazy, neurotic, introverted, and dislike team work.

In  1935,   Kurt   Lewin  published   A  Dynamic Theory  of Personality,  where he strongly criticized trait-based understanding of personality and  proposed a new way of understanding human  behavior.   Lewin’s   approach  to   personality  explains human  behavior  based on how the individual  perceives and  acts  within  the  context  of  his  or  her immediate  psychological  situation. In  his  theory, Lewin viewed behavior  as the result of the properties  and   dynamics   of  one’s  psychological   field “here  and  now,”  as  a  product of  totality   of  the psychological   situation. Every  behavior   depends on the psychological  state of the person and on the environment. Human behavior  is viewed as a function  of both  the person  (i.e., Lewin does not  rule out  the  fact that  individual  differences  exist)  and the total  situation as perceived  by the individual, where

Behavior = f (Person, Situation).

In this view, human  behavior  can be predicted if one is able to take into account  the total “field” of “psychological forces” acting on the individual. However,   psychological   forces   are   not   simply external  to the individual  the way physical forces might  be understood. They  are  subjective  forces experienced  by the  individual, based  on  how  he or she perceives and makes sense of his or her immediate  psychological  situation. Thus,  to  predict  the  person’s   behavior   in  any  situation, a researcher must try to see the person’s situation as the person  sees it in order  to understand the psychological   forces   experienced   by   the   person. Because the individual’s  behavior  is in a dynamic (constantly changing) relationship with his or her psychological    situation,  Lewin’s   approach  is called a dynamic theory of personality, in contrast to trait-based approaches that  attempt to predict behavior  based  on  a static  categorization of the individual’s  personality type.

In summary,  although there are other schools of thought on  personality such  as behaviorism  or  a humanistic approach, the trait-based view and situational view on personality dominate the current interpretation on personality. Trait-based views of personality start  from properties of the individual and assume that  these properties are predictors of behavior. At best, situations and context are viewed in terms of moderator variables that may influence the relationship between personality and behavior. A  situational approach  on  personality does  not preclude the possibility of individual differences. However, to explain or predict a person’s behavior, one must  start  by examining  the individual’s  psychological  situation: the  situation as  the  person subjectively perceives it. Individual differences play a role in human behavior because they may be associated  with differences in how individuals  perceive their  immediate  situation, which may derive from   differences   in   background,  culture,   and gender.


  1. Funder, David. “Personality.” Annual Review  of Psychology,  52 (2001).
  2. Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.
  3. Lewin, Kurt. “Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total  ” In Environments: Notes  and Selections on Objects,  Spaces and Behavior.  S. Friedman  and J. B. Juhasz, eds. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1974.

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